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Posted on: February 27, 2019

Make Your Case to the Voters? Sure, if You Like Sitting in Jail…

Supporters of the radical 2.5 percent city and county revenue cap routinely say it’s not a cap because city officials can simply “make their case to the voters” before the rollback election.  Seems reasonable, but it’s not a great idea because any city official who attempts to do so would be a criminal.

Cities are prohibited by the Election Code from using any city resources to argue for or against a ballot proposition, which is what a rollback proposition is.  While cities can put out a statement of fact, such as a flyer stating how much estimated revenue would be lost, they can’t advocate. 

The Texas Ethics Commission has devoted an entire web page to the topic.  According to the commission, any amount of advocacy in favor of a proposition is unacceptable.  By unacceptable, we mean a city official who does so is subject to criminal prosecution for a Class A misdemeanor (punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and confinement in jail for up to one year) and civil penalties.

Under current law, advocacy can be as innocuous as stating “let’s invest in the future.”  In fact, the legislature and the commission set up a program under which cities can submit their proposed literature for review to ensure that no one goes to jail for using a wrong word in a white paper or mailer.  This is a not a speculative issue – local government officials have been the subject of criminal investigations and local governments have been ordered to pay civil penalties, all for advocating for a better place to live.

If a city can’t explain its reasoning for a particular year’s property tax increase, but the anti-tax interest groups can freely argue against it, it’s like fighting with both hands tied behind your back.  Any reduction in the rollback rate should be accompanied by legislation that gives cities a fair playing field when it comes to explaining why the budget proposes to spend what it does. 

Think about it this way:  with no context whatsoever about why a certain tax increase might be necessary, a voter would be crazy not to vote no on any tax increase.  It’s human nature.  Your TML staff would probably vote no on a rollback election at 2.5 percent given the ridiculous one-sidedness of the legal restrictions under current law.     

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